I admit, I’ve never been a big business kind of guy. Besides the fact that they make you wear a suit (I haven’t worn one in years), things are just a bit too cutthroat for me. I guess I’m just too much of a nice guy. I definitely wouldn’t be a good fit for the world portrayed in our film today. It’s the underhanded, shrewd, devious world of…shoe manufacturing. I know, it’s reputation preceeds it. Let us delve into its dark underbelly with 1933’s The Working Man.
Our story centers on John Reeves (George Arliss), owner of a successful shoe company. Reeves is a tough boss, but he’s also getting a bit older. His nephew Benjamin Burnett (Hardie Albright) sees himself as being the real brains of the operation. The biggest competition for Reeves is Hartland Shoes, which is owned by a former friend and business partner. The two have battled for years, but when Reeves learns that Hartland has passed away he is deeply saddened by the news. You see, the two men were once good friends, but a woman got between them. In the months that follow, Reeves’ company thrives and Hartland’s struggles. Eventually, Reeves decides to head off to do some fishing in Maine, leaving his nephew in charge.
While fishing out on a lake with an old friend, Reeves encounters a large yacht full of partiers. Among them are two spoiled siblings who swim over to the fishing boat in search of some scotch. Turns out that these two are Jenny (Bette Davis) and Tommy Hartland (Theodore Newton), heirs to the Hartland fortune…which, by the way, has been dwindling for months. Later, Reeves (under the false name of Walton) goes over to the yacht when they need a fourth player for bridge. Things get a little wild at this party and a drunken Tommy accidentally smashes Walton’s wrist with a liquor bottle. Jenny then insists that Walton come back to New York with them and get care from their doctor.
While in the city, Walton has the chance to visit the Hartland factory…which is severely mismanaged by the manager, Mr. Pettison (Gordon Westcott), who seems more concerned with getting cozy with Jenny than with running the business. At first Reeves/Walton plots to buy out the doomed company, but when he spots a portrait of Jenny and Tommy’s mother, the girl he once loved, he sets out to help them. He manages to get himself named their trustee and then proceeds to end their partying ways and force them to take charge of the company. Before long, Reeves learns that Pettison is intentionally running the company into the ground. Complicating matters, Jenny uses a false name to go to work for the Reeves company and starts to fall in love with the headstrong nephew.
The Working Man starts off a little slow and gets a bit too bogged down in sales reports, meetings, and other boring stuff, but things start to take off once the two spoiled Hartland children enter the story. It’s kind of funny to think about it, but essentially Bette Davis is playing a Kardashian! As you can imagine, she absolutely eats it up! I love the sequence of events that is the real turning point of the film. Walton is named trustee and so the brother and sister throw a huge party. They think the old guy will be a real pushover. The liquor flows like crazy, but the next morning, the two wake up to the news that all the servants have been fired and all the booze has been poured down the drain. Davis’ reaction to this predicament is priceless. Even better, though, is watching her struggle to hunt and peck out a simple letter on a typewriter later in the film.
George Arliss also turns in a very nice performance. The early sequences of the film are quite impressive as he very quickly and smoothly switches from a hard-edged businessman, with an almost Ebenezer Scrooge-like quality, to a grinning softy when he starts thinking about fishing on a lake with his old friend. I do wish we’d had a little bit more time with the gruff version of the character, not to mention more opportunity for him to spar with Davis and Newton. As it is, though, Arliss’ performance is a strong anchor for this story.
My biggest complaint, though, is that, like many other pre-code films, all the pieces of this story get wrapped up a bit too nicely at the end. Things work out for everybody and it’s smiles all around…which is more than a little bit unbelievable. Overall, though, The Working Man is a fun little pre-code with a clever premise and some juicy performances.